Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 10

Violet Effingham

It was now the middle of May, and a month had elapsed since the terrible difficulty about the Queen’s Government had been solved. A month had elapsed, and things had shaken themselves into their places with more of ease and apparent fitness than men had given them credit for possessing. Mr Mildmay, Mr Gresham, and Mr Monk were the best friends in the world, swearing by each other in their own house, and supported in the other by as gallant a phalanx of Whig peers as ever were got together to fight against the instincts of their own order in compliance with the instincts of those below them. Lady Laura’s father was in the Cabinet, to Lady Laura’s infinite delight. It was her ambition to be brought as near to political action as was possible for a woman without surrendering any of the privileges of feminine inaction. That women should even wish to have votes at parliamentary elections was to her abominable, and the cause of the Rights of Women generally was odious to her; but, nevertheless, for herself, she delighted in hoping that she too might be useful — in thinking that she too was perhaps, in some degree, politically powerful; and she had received considerable increase to such hopes when her father accepted the Privy Seal. The Earl himself was not an ambitious man, and, but for his daughter, would have severed himself altogether from political life before this time. He was an unhappy man — being an obstinate man, and having in his obstinacy quarrelled with his only son. In his unhappiness he would have kept himself alone, living in the country, brooding over his wretchedness, were it not for his daughter. On her behalf, and in obedience to her requirements, he came yearly up to London, and, perhaps in compliance with her persuasion, had taken some part in the debates of the House of Lords. It is easy for a peer to be a statesman, if the trouble of the life be not too much for him. Lord Brentford was now a statesman, if a seat in the Cabinet be proof of statesmanship.

At this time, in May, there was staying with Lady Laura in Portman Square a very dear friend of hers, by name Violet Effingham. Violet Effingham was an orphan, an heiress, and a beauty; with a terrible aunt, one Lady Baldock, who was supposed to be the dragon who had Violet, as a captive maiden, in charge. But as Miss Effingham was of age, and was mistress of her own fortune, Lady Baldock was, in truth, not omnipotent as a dragon should be. The dragon, at any rate, was not now staying in Portman Square, and the captivity of the maiden was therefore not severe at the present moment. Violet Effingham was very pretty, but could hardly be said to be beautiful. She was small, with light crispy hair, which seemed to be ever on the flutter round her brows, and which yet was never a hair astray. She had sweet, soft grey eyes, which never looked at you long, hardly for a moment — but which yet, in that half moment, nearly killed you by the power of their sweetness. Her cheek was the softest thing in nature, and the colour of it, when its colour was fixed enough to be told, was a shade of pink so faint and creamy that you would hardly dare to call it by its name. Her mouth was perfect, not small enough to give that expression of silliness which is so common, but almost divine, with the temptation of its full, rich, ruby lips. Her teeth, which she but seldom showed, were very even and very white, and there rested on her chin the dearest dimple that ever acted as a loadstar to men’s eyes. The fault of her face, if it had a fault, was in her nose — which was a little too sharp, and perhaps too small. A woman who wanted to depreciate Violet Effingham had once called her a pug-nosed puppet; but I, as her chronicler, deny that she was pug-nosed — and all the world who knew her soon came to understand that she was no puppet. In figure she was small, but not so small as she looked to be. Her feet and hands were delicately fine, and there was a softness about her whole person, an apparent compressibility, which seemed to indicate that she might go into very small compass. Into what compass and how compressed, there were very many men who held very different opinions. Violet Effingham was certainly no puppet. She was great at dancing — as perhaps might be a puppet — but she was great also at archery, great at skating — and great, too, at hunting. With reference to that last accomplishment, she and Lady Baldock had had more than one terrible tussle, not always with advantage to the dragon. “My dear aunt,” she had said once during the last winter, “I am going to the meet with George,” — George was her cousin, Lord Baldock, and was the dragon’s son — “and there, let there be an end of it.” “And you will promise me that you will not go further,” said the dragon. “I will promise nothing today to any man or to any woman,” said Violet. What was to be said to a young lady who spoke in this way, and who had become of age only a fortnight since? She rode that day the famous run from Bagnall’s Gorse to Foulsham Common, and was in at the death. Violet Effingham was now sitting in conference with her friend Lady Laura, and they were discussing matters of high import — of very high import, indeed — to the interests of both of them. “I do not ask you to accept him,” said Lady Laura.

“That is lucky,” said the other, as he has never asked me.”

“He has done much the same. You know that he loves you.”

“I know — or fancy that I know — that so many men love me! But, after all, what sort of love is it? It is just as when you and I, when we see something nice in a shop, call it a dear duck of a thing, and tell somebody to go and buy it, let the price be ever so extravagant. I know my own position, Laura. I’m a dear duck of a thing.”

“You are a very dear thing to Oswald.”

“But you, Laura, will some day inspire a grand passion — or I daresay have already, for you are a great deal too close to tell — and then there will be cutting of throats, and a mighty hubbub, and a real tragedy. I shall never go beyond genteel comedy — unless I run away with somebody beneath me, or do something awfully improper.”

“Don’t do that, dear.”

“I should like to, because of my aunt. I should indeed. If it were possible, without compromising myself, I should like her to be told some morning that I had gone off with the curate.”

“How can you be so wicked, Violet!”

“It would serve her right, and her countenance would be so awfully comic. Mind, if it is ever to come off I must be there to see it. I know what she would say as well as possible. She would turn to poor Gussy. “Augusta,” she would say, ‘I always expected it. I always did.’ Then I should come out and curtsey to her, and say so prettily, ‘Dear aunt, it was only our little joke.’ That’s my line. But for you — you, if you planned it, would go off tomorrow with Lucifer himself if you liked him.”

“But failing Lucifer, I shall probably be very humdrum.”

“You don’t mean that there is anything settled, Laura?”

“There is nothing settled — or any beginning of anything that ever can be settled. But I am not talking about myself. He has told me that if you will accept him, he will do anything that you and I may ask him.”

“Yes — he will promise.”

“Did you ever know him to break his word?”

“I know nothing about him, my dear. How should I?”

“Do not pretend to be ignorant and meek, Violet. You do know him — much better than most girls know the men they marry. You have known him, more or less intimately, all your life.”

“But am I bound to marry him because of that accident?”

“No; you are not bound to marry him — unless you love him.”

“I do not love him,” said Violet, with slow, atic words, and a little forward motion of her face, as though she were specially eager to convince her friend that she was quite in earnest in what she said.

“I fancy, Violet, that you are nearer to loving him than any other man.”

“I am not at all near to loving any man. I doubt whether I ever shall be. It does not seem to me to be possible to myself to be what girls call in love. I can like a man, I do like, perhaps, half a dozen. I like them so much that if I go to a house or to a party it is quite a matter of importance to me whether this man or that will or will not be there. And then I suppose I flirt with them. At least Augusta tells me that my aunt says that I do. But as for caring about any one of them in the way of loving him — wanting to marry him, and have him all to myself, and that sort of thing — I don’t know what it means.”

“But you intend to be married some day,” said Lady Laura.

“Certainly I do. And I don’t intend to wait very much longer. I am heartily tired of Lady Baldock, and though I can generally escape among my friends, that is not sufficient. I am beginning to think that it would be pleasant to have a house of my own. A girl becomes such a Bohemian when she is always going about, and doesn’t quite know where any of her things are.”

Then there was a silence between them for a few minutes. Violet Effingham was doubled up in a corner of a sofa, with her feet tucked under her, and her face reclining upon one of her shoulders. And as she talked she was playing with a little toy which was constructed to take various shapes as it was flung this way or that. A bystander looking at her would have thought that the toy was much more to her than the conversation. Lady Laura was sitting upright, in a common chair, at a table not far from her companion, and was manifestly devoting herself altogether to the subject that was being discussed between them. She had taken no lounging, easy attitude, she had found no employment for her fingers, and she looked steadily at Violet as she talked — whereas Violet was looking only at the little manikin which she tossed. And now Laura got up and came to the sofa, and sat close to her friend. Violet, though she somewhat moved one foot, so as to seem to make room for the other, still went on with her play.

“If you do marry, Violet, you must choose some one man out of the lot.”

“That’s quite true, my dear, I certainly can’t marry them all.”

“And how do you mean to make the choice?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I shall toss up.”

“I wish you would be in earnest with me.”

“Well — I will be in earnest. I shall take the first that comes after I have quite made up my mind. You’ll think it very horrible, but that is really what I shall do. After all, a husband is very much like a house or a horse. You don’t take your house because it’s the best house in the world, but because just then you want a house. You go and see a house, and if it’s very nasty you don’t take it. But if you think it will suit pretty well, and if you are tired of looking about for houses, you do take it. That’s the way one buys one’s horses — and one’s husbands.”

“And you have not made up your mind yet?”

“Not quite. Lady Baldock was a little more decent than usual just before I left Baddingham. When I told her that I meant to have a pair of ponies, she merely threw up her hands and grunted. She didn’t gnash her teeth, and curse and swear, and declare to me that I was a child of perdition.”

“What do you mean by cursing and swearing?”

“She told me once that if I bought a certain little dog, it would lead to my being everlastingly — you know what. She isn’t so squeamish as I am, and said it out.”

“What did you do?”

“I bought the little dog, and it bit my aunt’s heel. I was very sorry then, and gave the creature to Mary Rivers. He was such a beauty! I hope the perdition has gone with him, for I don’t like Mary Rivers at all. I had to give the poor beasty to somebody, and Mary Rivers happened to be there. I told her that Puck was connected with Apollyon, but she didn’t mind that. Puck was worth twenty guineas, and I daresay she has sold him.”

“Oswald may have an equal chance then among the other favourites?” said Lady Laura, after another pause.

“There are no favourites, and I will not say that any man may have a chance. Why do you press me about your brother in this way?”

“Because I am so anxious. Because it would save him, Because you are the only woman for whom he has ever cared, and because he loves you with all his heart; and because his father would be reconciled to him tomorrow if he heard that you and he were engaged.”

“Laura, my dear — ”

“Well.”

“You won’t be angry if I speak out?”

“Certainly not. After what I have said, you have a right to speak out.”

“It seems to me that all your reasons are reasons why he should marry me — not reasons why I should marry him.”

“Is not his love for you a reason?”

“No,” said Violet, pausing — and speaking the word in the lowest possible whisper. “If he did not love me, that, if known to me, should be a reason why I should not marry him. Ten men may love me — I don’t say that any man does — ”

“He does.”

“But I can’t marry all the ten. And as for that business of saving him — ”

“You know what I mean!”

“I don’t know that I have any special mission for saving young men. I sometimes think that I shall have quite enough to do to save myself. It is strange what a propensity I feel for the wrong side of the post.

“I feel the strongest assurance that you will always keep on the right side.”

“Thank you, my dear. I mean to try, but I’m quite sure that the jockey who takes me in hand ought to be very steady himself. Now, Lord Chiltern — ”

“Well — out with it. What have you to say?”

“He does not bear the best reputation in this world as a steady man. Is he altogether the sort of man that mammas of the best kind are seeking for their daughters? I like a roué myself — and a prig who sits all night in the House, and talks about nothing but church rates and suffrage, is to me intolerable. I prefer men who are improper, and all that sort of thing. If I were a man myself I should go in for everything I ought to leave alone. I know I should. But you see — I’m not a man, and I must take care of myself. The wrong side of a post for a woman is so very much the wrong side. I like a fast man, but I know that I must not dare to marry the sort of man that I like.”

“To be one of us, then — the very first among us — would that be the wrong side?”

“You mean that to be Lady Chiltern in the present tense, and Lady Brentford in the future, would be promotion for Violet Effingham in the past?”

“How hard you are, Violet!”

“Fancy — that it should come to this — that you should call me hard, Laura. I should like to be your sister. I should like well enough to be your father’s daughter. I should like well enough to be Chiltern’s friend. I am his friend. Nothing that any one has ever said of him has estranged me from him. I have fought for him till I have been black in the face. Yes, I have — with my aunt. But I am afraid to be his wife. The risk would be so great. Suppose that I did not save him, but that he brought me to shipwreck instead?”

“That could not be!”

“Could it not? I think it might be so very well. When I was a child they used to be always telling me to mind myself. It seems to me that a child and a man need not mind themselves. Let them do what they may, they can be set right again. Let them fall as they will, you can put them on their feet. But a woman has to mind herself — and very hard work it is when she has a dragon of her own driving her ever the wrong way.”

“I want to take you from the dragon.”

“Yes — and to hand me over to a griffin.”

“The truth is, Violet, that you do not know Oswald. He is not a griffin.”

“I did not mean to he uncomplimentary. Take any of the dangerous wild beasts you please. I merely intend to point out that he is a dangerous wild beast. I daresay he is noble-minded, and I will call him a lion if you like it better. But even with a lion there is risk.”

“Of course there will be risk. There is risk with every man — unless you will be contented with the prig you described. Of course there would be risk with my brother. He has been a gambler.”

“They say he is one still.”

“He has given it up in part, and would entirely at your instance.”

“And they say other things of him, Laura.”

“It is true. He has had paroxysms of evil life which have well-nigh ruined him.”

“And these paroxysms are so dangerous! Is he not in debt?”

“He is — but not deeply. Every shilling that he owes would be paid — every shilling. Mind, I know all his circumstances, and I give you my word that every shilling should be paid. He has never lied — and he has told me everything. His father could not leave an acre away from him if he would, and would not if he could.”

“I did not ask as fearing that. I spoke only of a dangerous habit. A paroxysm of spending money is apt to make one so uncomfortable. And then — ”

“Well.”

“I don’t know why I should make a catalogue of your brother’s weaknesses.”

“You mean to say that he drinks too much?”

“I do not say so. People say so. The dragon says so. And as I always find her sayings to be untrue, I suppose this is like the rest of them.”

“It is untrue if it be said of him as a habit.”

“It is another paroxysm, just now and then.”

“Do not laugh at me, Violet, when I am taking his part, or I shall be offended.”

“But you see, if I am to be his wife, it is — rather important.”

“Still you need not ridicule me.”

“Dear Laura, you know I do not ridicule you. You know I love you for what you are doing. Would not I do the same, and fight for him down to my nails if I had a brother?”

“And therefore I want you to be Oswald’s wife — because I know that you would fight for him. It is not true that he is a — drunkard. Look at his hand, which is as steady as yours. Look at his eye. Is there a sign of it? He has been drunk, once or twice, perhaps — and has done fearful things.”

“It might be that he would do fearful things to me.”

“You never knew a man with a softer heart or with a finer spirit. I believe as I sit here that if he were married tomorrow, his vices would fall from him like old clothes.”

“You will admit, Laura, that there will be some risk for the wife.”

“Of course there will be a risk. Is there not always a risk?”

“The men in the city would call this double-dangerous, I think,” said Violet. Then the door was opened, and the man of whom they were speaking entered the room.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43